Holy War In the Nevada Desert



  Evander “Real Deal” Holifield


  “Iron Mike” Tyson!


 A Ferocious Warrior


 The Deeper Meaning of Tyson vs. Holyfield

 When Evander “real deal” Holyfield faced the multitude of screaming fans after stopping “Iron” Mike Tyson in the eleventh round of their twelve round World championship fight last Saturday night, he held his arms aloft in triumph and pronounced to a world wide television audience of millions :“My God is the one true God!”  Holyfield sounded like an Old Testament prophet and it seemed like the battle of the crescent and the cross was being fought all over again, especially since Tyson has been such an outspoken Muslim after emerging from the joint.  

 It was fitting that Holyfield chose to pursue his dream of becoming the world Heavyweight Champion for the third time – a feat only the great Mohammed Ali had accomplished – in a Vegas casino. Las Vegas is a town where the vicissitudes of life can be manipulated with the spin of a roulette wheel, and dreams are bartered for fool’s gold everyday of the week.  But it is also a place where your wildest dreams sometimes come true. And Holyfield’s dream of conquering the heavyweight crown one mo time came true in spades.          

            Nobody who knows anything about the boxing game gave Holyfield a ghost of a chance in his desert dance with “Iron” Mike Tyson.  Since his release from an Indiana prison, the Brownsville bully has bowled over his opponents like a Sherman tank demolishing sandmen. So it was not surprising that as late as two days before the fight, boxing wise guys set the odds at 25-1.  Which is to say that they showed Holyfield – one of the gamest warriors to ever lace on the gloves and step into the squared ring of combat – less respect than Rodney Dangerfield gets.  And his whole sthick is “I don’t get no respect!”

  But on this occasion Holyfield took a lesson from the bumble bee.  Like the wise guys who set the odds in this fight, any run-of-the-mill aeronautical engineer can pull out his slide rule and demonstrate why a bumble bee can’t fly.  But since bumble bees don’t know shit about the science of aero-dynamics, they fly anyway!

In spite of the fact that many of his long time boxing associates – Lou Duva and Shelly Finkle, his former trainer and manager, among them – begged Evander to hang up his gloves and call it quits he continued his quest to conquer Iron Mike. It would have been easy enough for him to quit the game because, unlike many other professional athletes, Holyfield doesn’t need the money.  While there is some dispute as to whether he is worth 100 or 200 million, everybody agrees that, barring a lot of bad investments, he’ll never have to worry about money again in life.  So what was he doing in the ring with a dangerous younger fighter with superlative boxing skills, murderous punching power and bad intentions?

What causes aging fighters with declining skills to remain in the ring long after they have acquired great fame and fortune is a mystery to most of us.  Perhaps it is something that only another great fighter can really understand.  But with George Foreman still trading punches while closing in on 50, and Sugar Ray Leonard coming out of retirement for one last tango with Hector “Macho” Camacho, it is a question many boxing fans are asking.

While disavowing any comeback plans for himself, former undisputed middleweight champion, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, offered as good an explanation of this curious phenomenon as we are likely to get. “Boxing is an addiction, it’s like drugs, it gets in your system,” he said in an ESPN interview on the eve of the Holyfield/Tyson fight. “The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my boxing career is staying away from it now. After the thrill of boxing what is there?  It’s a life long love. So while I have no plans for a comeback myself, I understand why Leonard and Foreman are stepping in the ring again.”  Sugar Ray Leonard says he is not addicted to the sport but is coming back because he feels that when he was boxing he “made a difference.  And I want to feel like that again.”   Big George Foreman says he was miserable after he retired from boxing “although I had millions and millions of dollars, and could do whatever I wanted.” Foreman says he’s back in the ring, “because I love it.”    

I think these answers also explain what drove Holyfield to risk life and limb – against the advice of virtually everybody who loves him – by climbing into the ring with a dangerous bomber like Tyson, who has been creaming opponents in seconds without breaking a sweat.  But beyond all that, Holyfield felt that there would always be a conspicuous hole in his resume if he didn’t fight and defeat “Iron Mike.”  Hence this fight was for posterity.

At the post fight press conference, after melting down “Iron” Mike with an eleventh round TKO, Holyfield spoke to the meaning of this fight for his career as a heavyweight champion. Reminiscing on how he and Tyson first met as amateur fighters when they both won Golden Gloves titles in 1984, he said: “I watched Mike train and I realized that alotta people didn’t give Mike credit for how hard he worked.  My goal was always to be the heavyweight champion of the world…and I watched Mike and I realized that nobody could beat Mike.  It’s not so much that I wanted to challenge him just to challenge him, but I realized that to be the heavyweight champion I would have to fight the best man and I always prepared myself to fight the best man.  Every time Mike fought I always watched him and I realized that Mike had a style that couldn’t nobody cope with…I lost the heavyweight championship and got it back, but when Mike went away I lost something because nobody else really, really, really, got me up to fight.  So I take my hat off to Mike.”

What impressed me the most about Holyfield’s historic victory over Tyson is his absolute certainty that he would prevail because God was on his side.  Although 39 of the top 40 boxing writers picked Tyson by a knockout, Holyfield – in a move reminiscent of Broadway Joe’s prediction that the Jets would prevail over the peerless Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the Super bowl – guaranteed that he would kick Tyson’s ass “whether it goes one round or the distance.”  But Holyfield was quick to point out after his victory: “I didn’t just go in there by myself to fight Mike. I thanked God and I prayed. I prayed all the time during training; we had a prayer section.  I prayed when I got up in the ring. I prayed when I was fighting him…because I realized what I was facing…I knew that I would have to pray to be in there with the man.”

Listening to Holyfield testify to the critical role of religious belief and ritual in his victory, accompanied by the most rigorous training routine of his career – normally he trains eight weeks for a fight, but this time his training extended to fifteen weeks – I was reminded of my grandfather.  Like the champ, granddaddy George was a deeply religious southern man.  He was also a deacon in the church who slept with the bible, a flashlight and a 38 snub nose Roscoe under his pillow.  As a boy I once asked him why he kept a pistol beside the bible instead of relying on the lord for protection.  Without mincing words, granddad said ‘Well boy, the bible says the lord moves in mysterious ways, and I don’t know when I might havta hold a sapsucker off until the lord decides to make his move!”

This practical side to Holyfield’s religiosity is yet another demonstration of the power of religious passion to inspire great deeds, since I never expected him to survive the first round!  His feat incited the same awe that I experienced when I saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame, or the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Holyfield’s attitude toward religion should come as a boon to the religious right in their efforts to indoctrinate young people with religious dogma.  For it contains the same mix of spiritual piety and material pragmatism summed up in the saying “God helps those who help themselves.”  It is an attitude which informed the Protestant ethic that fueled the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, and it is a central value in the core culture of black America.However, the religious rhetoric spouted by Mike Tyson was no less impassioned.  Rising from his seat on the podium at the post fight press conference to answer questions about the royal ass whipping he had just received, Tyson began his remarks with,” I bear witness that there is but one God, and I bear witness that Mohammed is the prophet of God.”  This kind of talk points up a little understood aspect of Afro-American life and community which Stephen Carter, a black law professor at Yale, demonstrates in his recent book on religion in America: Black folks are the most religious group in the nation. 

To tell the truth, I often wonder if we may be too religious. I become most skeptical of our religiosity when I think about the fact that much of the Afro-American political leadership is men of the cloth.  There are at least two obvious problems arising from this arrangement: a tendency to substitute biblical wisdom in matters where the cold objectivity of scientific analysis is required, and the melding of political and religious ideologies. 

It is this merging of politics and religion that has resulted in the Christian/Muslim schism in black leadership i.e. Dr. King and Malcolm X, Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson.  And since fighters are representatives of the common man these schisms show up among them too.  It was at the root of the animosity between Floyd Patterson/Muhammad Ali, and it fuels the antagonism reflected in the religious declarations of Holyfield and Tyson.

 The fight itself was the kind of action packed spectacle boxing fans always hope for but seldom sees when we plop down our dollars to witness a prize fight.  Before the fight Tyson tried his usual bullying tactics which un-nerves most of his opponents before the fight ever gets started.  He went around raging about how he was going to punish Holyfield for once having said that he would not fight a convicted rapist.  Holyfield’s attempts to explain that he never made the remarks were interpreted as weakness by the black suited derby wearing flunkies who call themselves “Team Tyson.”  After hearing this charge repeated ad nauseam at the pre-fight press conference, along with tough talk from Tyson, Holyfield suggested that they settle any beef between them in the ring.

 And settle it they did, in one of the great grudge matches and upsets in boxing history.  Many fans and pundits of pugilism thought it was empty bravado when Holyfield insisted over and over that Mike Tyson didn’t scare him and was a bully who thrived on intimidating his opponents, but would back up if an opponent stood up and smacked him in the face.  All the doubters were silenced however, when Holyfield proved his point by standing right in Tyson’s face and thoroughly dominating him, out boxing and out punching him, confusing and abusing him in an exhibition which reminds us why A.J. Lieberling called boxing “The Sweet Science.” 

 When he took Tyson out with a devastating nine punch combination in the eleventh round, after Tyson had been barely saved by the bell in the tenth, Holyfield shocked the world and made believers out of the skeptics who thought was over the hill. This fight must be ranked as one of the great upsets in boxing history. I would place it right along side the two Ali /Liston fights, the first Leonard/Hearns match, Hagler/Leonard and especially Ali/Foreman. 

           In The Heat Of Combat!

 Evander - tysonbite

Out boxed and out punched by Holifield Mike Takes a Bite!

Holifield /Tyson has the most in common with Ali/Foreman because in both cases an ex-champion who was past his prime challenged a younger champion with devastating punching power whom the pundits considered virtually unbeatable.  And in both cases the old masters ended the match by knocking their opponents out.  Ail did it with the “rope-a-dope,” and Holyfield did it by taking Tyson to school and showing the Brownsville bully what the art of boxing is really all about.  And both surprised the pundits, fans, and especially their opponents, by standing their ground rather than running around the ring.

By his example Holyfield has upheld the highest ideals of sport, which is to win without arrogance and lose with grace. In spite of incessant attacks on his courage and character launched from the Tyson camp, Holyfield remained a true sportsman and took the high road.  The difference in character between the two fighters was reflected in the style of their camps as they entered the arena.  Holyfield strolled gracefully to the ring, smiling at the crowd as a beautiful Rhythm and Blues ballad played in the background, while a sneering Tyson approached the ring with a b-boy swagger accompanied by a ominous looking crew clad in black and reciting the lyrics of a loud rap record which, judging by the posturing of the Tyson posse, had a gangsta vibe. 

The different camp styles reflect two major tendencies in contemporary African-American culture: the optimistic church based southern culture that produced Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, vs. the nihilistic northern and western urban prison based milieu that produced Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam and Tupac Shaker.  I think that in this fight the best man won.  Not only is he the best fighter, but without a doubt Evander Holyfield is the better role model for the youths who admire the heavyweight champion all over the world.

            However, in spite of his magnificent performance in this fight, it is time for the aging warrior to hang up his gloves.  Already his speech is beginning to slur, and he need only look at Ali, Ken Norton and Joe Frazier to see what awaits him if he stays in the ring.  Given his growing compulsion to preach every time a microphone is shoved in his face, perhaps his new calling is in the pulpit.  He would be a smash on the booming evangelical circuit, where he might even save a few souls…and some bodies too. 

As for Iron Mike, well, given what I saw of the cheese champs who were featured on the under card, it’s just a matter of time before he monopolizes the heavyweight championship again.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is for him to get his act together so that he can become a better person.  Sometimes a good ass whipping can serve as a wake up call; let’s hope that’s the case with the Brownsville bully, who never won a round against the real deal in or out of the ring! 

            Playthell Benjamin  


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